History of Liquor: Distilled Spirits Timelines

The history of liquor is a fascinating one. Its origins are unclear. But most historians believe people first distilled alcohol around the 13th century AD. Speculations about possible earlier development are just that… speculations.

Wine can develop with no human intervention. Beer can brew with little human involvement. But distilling alcohol requires an understanding of specific physical processes. It also requires advanced materials and technology. So people ‘developed’ distillation’ rather than ‘discovered’ it.


There is considerable variation in the meaning of the term ‘liquor.’¬Ě And its meaning has changed over time. People now generally use it in referring to distilled spirits. These include whiskey, rum, vodka, gin, tequila and other beverages containing alcohol resulting from distillation.



  1. Early History of Liquor
    The history of liquor is shrouded in mystery. Considerable disagreement exists over who first developed distillation as well when and where this occurred.
  2. Liquor in the 15th Century
    Knowledge of how to distill alcohol began to spread among monks, physicians, and alchemists.
  3. Liquor in the 16th Century
    Throughout most of the 16th century, drinking distilled spirits was still largely for medicinal purposes. But its popularity as a beverage grew.
  4. Liquor in the 17th Century
    The triangle trade developed as the popularity of rum rose. Elsewhere, “Old Bushmills Distillery” in Ireland became the first licensed whisky distillery in the world. It still produces whisky today.
  5. Liquor in the 18th Century
    The English Parliament aggressively promoted the production of gin. Distilling it used surplus grain and raised tax revenue.
  6. Liquor in the 19th Century
    Prohibition movements emerged in a number of countries. As the movements grew in power they increasingly led to temperance restrictions.
  7. Liquor in the 20th Century & Beyond
    A major event impacting liquor in a number of countries was prohibition. Prohibitions failed and caused serious problems.


history of liquor

Albertus Magnus – the first to describe how to distill alcohol

Resources on the History of Liquor

Austin, G. Alcohol in Western Society from Antiquity to 1800. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 1985.

Babor, T. Alcohol: Customs and Rituals. NY: Chelsea, 1986.

Baker, P. The Dedalus Book of Absinthe. Cambs, U.K.: Dedalus, 2001.

Blocker, J., et al. Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003.

Doxat, J. The World of Drinks and Drinking. NY: Drake, 1971,

Forbes, R. Short History of the Art of Distillation. Leiden: Brill, 1948.

Gately, I. Drink: A Cultural History of Alcohol. NY: Gotham, 2008.

Heath, D., (ed.) International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1995.

Holt, M. (Ed.) Alcohol: A Social and Cultural History. Oxford: Berg, 2006.

Hoover, M. The Whiskey Rebellion. Alcohol Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) website.

Kobler, J. Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. NY: Putnam’s: 1973

Lucia, S., (ed.) Alcohol and Civilization. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1963.

Magee, M. 1000 Years of Irish Whiskey. Dublin: O’Brien, 1980.

Murphy, B. The World Book of Whiskey. Chicago: Rand McNall, 1979.